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Beyond the flat world

Towards the end of a recent article about software (1) I talked about the "latest move towards the web as a space for highly customisable functionalities..." I didn't expect to find my thoughts echoed in quite a different light on the third page of a major Swiss newspaper. The whole-page article in Le Temps (2), which casts doubts about the intentions and role of Apple in relation to the Internet, talks of "a narrow vision of the Internet as thousands of applications." The newspaper article goes on to say of users that "they remain prisoners of an environment of applications." This is not the place to talk of the uneasiness one might feel when a former lesser player (in terms of sales, but not influence) suddenly becomes dominant. Nor is it the place to examine the way media can attack dominant players by casting allusions and putting forward ill thought out hypotheses. Instead, I would like to suggest an alternative way of seeing the changes currently going on related to the Internet and applications.

A spacial metaphor

One of the commonest ways of seeing and understanding the Internet is through a spacial or geographic metaphor. When people talk of the danger of creating islands in the Internet they are using that metaphor. The original military task of the internet was to 'route round trouble', battling against vulnerability by finding alternate roads around places (on the network) that had been hypothetically destroyed by nuclear attack. With time, advocates of an open Internet, came to defend a vision of the Internet as a place of freedom of movement and access that could be seen as a natural extension of he belief in individual freedom of speech and action. And when you see how the ruling figure of a country like Egypt drastically curtails access to the Internet in order to hold onto power, who could argue against openness?

Publishing and democratisation

A second metaphor emerged with the advent of the web: publishing. The work of Cern with the mass of information that needed handling drove Berners Lee and others to think up a system that made sharing information extremely easy despite incompatibilities between computer systems. This led to advocates of freedom of speech talking about the democratisation of publishing... It took a few years, but the change has been devastating for many traditional publishing actors who have not known how to react in time.

A new cusp

But my intention here is not to indulge in yet another history of the Internet. My purpose is to suggest that we have reached a new cusp in the rapid development of the use of information and communication technologies, one where it is not the delivery of information nor even the exchange of information in social media, but the functionalities that are provided for dealing with this information and exchange that are moving into the forefront. It is just this change that the newspaper article and the people interviewed were complaining about, arguing that it leads to a closed system and fragmentation. Amusingly, they are surprised at the raging success of such systems that offer functionality in the form of apps.

Ways of working

The provision of a multitude of small, modular apps coupled with our increasing ability to combine them for our own purposes, is a response to the need for much more flexible ways of working that seamlessly integrate technology and enhance what we do and above all how we do it. That it corresponds to a need can be seem in the number of people using such places as the Apple App Store. We are undergoing a shift from content to functions, from publishing and exchanging to developing processes. But his does not imply that the Internet goes away or that it is any less open. It means rather that our ways of accessing that 'infinite' space are changing. By combing Apps we gain direct access to the content that interests us and, more importantly, are able to extend the way we work with that content and its relationship to the world around us. Let me give an example.

Beyond the flat world

Goodreads (3) is an online community for people interested in reading. Not only do members indicate books they have read, are reading or want to read, but they also publish reviews of books and exchange with others about what they are reading. Goodreads has an App for the iPhone that enables you to read the barcode of a book with your iPhone without any additional equipment and in so doing, immediately provides the information available about the book. No more need to even type in the name of the book to find it in the extensive database and add it to your reading list. The first time I tried it, it was like magic. In that moment my iPhone created a tangible link between the mass of books on the shelf in front of me and the reading community of which I am a part. In comparison, the Internet as a web seemed flat and exterior, like the screen it is displayed on. Somewhere in there, behind the joy of my gut reaction to the Goodread's App, is the explanation why there is so much excitement about using apps to go beyond a flat online world to one that interacts more fully with the offline world. And in that relationship between the online and offline worlds mediated by simple-to-use technologies and our skill at combining and using them lies an exciting future.


(1) See The Software challenge

(2) February 1st 2011, Le Temps

(3) Goodreads:

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Created: February 1st, 2011 - Last up-dated: February 29th, 2011